In The Heights is nice, but a little too tame for its own good | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

In The Heights is nice, but a little too tame for its own good

Though revolutionary at the time of its release, the musical doesn't feel particularly challenging or unique these days

click to enlarge Morgan Jade Kirksey and T.J. Newton - PHOTO: MELISSA WALLACE
Photo: Melissa Wallace
Morgan Jade Kirksey and T.J. Newton
Lin-Manuel Miranda's 2005 musical In The Heights is about a neighborhood filled with very nice people. These neighbors fill their days with playful ribbing, harmless flirtation, and wide-smiled singing and rapping. OK, there's a grumpy dad and a vandal named Graffiti Pete, but overall these are friendly, hard-working folks who just want to sing and dance and beat the heat of a hot Washington Heights summer. The result is a pleasant, if inoffensive, couple hours of musical theater that will leave you feeling good, just fine.

The link that brings the cast of characters together is the local bodega called De La Vega Bodega, owned by Usnavi (T.J. Newton). There, he wears a cap and a goatee (while looking a lot like Lin-Manuel), and deals with the various headaches and perks that come when you're at the helm of a vital neighborhood resource. As you might expect from an ensemble this size, everyone has baggage and aspirations and secrets; sooner or later, they convene in one way or another at De La Vega Bodega.
Pittsburgh Musical Theater presents: In The Heights
Continues through Sun., Feb. 3
Gargaro Theater, West End
Directed by Erin Krom
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda, book by Quira Alegria Hudes
Usnavi wants to keep his store open, take care of his abuela, and eventually voice his feelings for neighborhood beauty Vanessa (Samantha Sayah), who's dealing with an alcoholic mother. Nina (Morgan Jade Kirksey) is a promising young student who "made it out" of the barrio to attend Stanford but is struggling with the workload. Usnavi's cousin Sonny (Austin Rivers) works at the bodega and provides some of the biggest laughs on stage and off, though wishes to be taken more seriously. Graffiti Pete (Adam Fladd) actually kind of has his shit together.

And so In The Heights (book by Quira Alegria Hudes) unfolds one song at a time with music and lyrics that range from achingly sincere to memorably funky. Like their characters, this ensemble is deeply likable and every performer has the singing and dancing chops to keep the audience engrossed. But two problems became clear as the night wore on. Sitting so close to the live band (who were excellent) made it tough to hear the performers on stage, particularly on the mouthier rap verses and more elaborate duets. That's a production gaffe that might just require some tweaking as its run continues. But the problem of the compositions — transparent, low-stakes, mostly unmemorable — is tougher to overlook.

Miranda's talent and charisma and knowing sincerity are all apparent in this production, even if the result isn't all that great. And it's no fault of the performers and producers that his idiosyncratic, kid-gloves, PSA style doesn't translate well here. It's a respectable production filled with personalities I'd like to see again. I just wish the play itself put a little more skin in the game, and maybe a few characters who weren't so nice.

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